Wish Me Luck

September 6, 2013

So, I’m off to That London tomorrow for reasons which may become clear on Tuesday and the Brompton will be coming with me – returning temporarily to its ancestral home. The reason for bringing the Brompton is to help Babymother revive the bike-borne school run, as apparently this needs a Cycling Aunt, presumably of the Wodehousian variety. Obviously that means getting the Brompton from Euston to London’s wild north, which I could do perfectly sensibly by folding it up and taking it on the train, but it’s a little known fact that Bromptons are manufactured from pure gravitanium which means that although they are quite light when you pick them up, they get heavier and heavier the longer you carry them. Lugging one up the spiral staircase at Finsbury Park does not appeal, so my plan is to cycle there instead. What could possibly go wrong?

Last time I cycled between North London and the Euston Road I was 22 and immortal, and heading for a last-minute place on a Master’s course in what was then Bristol Poly, which makes me about 97 now. I was on my old student bike with all my worldly goods stuffed into an enormous backpack and I decided to take what seemed to be the easiest and most obvious route which involved going down the A1 and along the Euston Road to Paddington. At the junction between two enormous roads I saw an amber light and decided to just go for it, having forgotten that a) poorly maintained hybrid bikes piloted by unfit students laden down with backpacks don’t have much acceleration and b) London road junctions are ENORMOUS. The next thing I remember was what appeared to be four streams of traffic converging on me at once with their horns blaring while I tried to wave apologetically and pedal for my life. Needless to say, I did not ride back that way again.

Tomorrow, older and I hope wiser, I will be setting off with a game friend to see how far we get on the return journey. This time we’ll be following the railway line and avoiding big roads and if it all gets too traumatic we’ll just hop on a train instead like sensible people. If nothing else, I suppose, I shall get a blog out of it. And hopefully not a one-way ticket to A&E…

More tomorrow, if I’m spared.


August 2, 2013

Our new neighbour will be moving in tomorrow, apparently – he’s not only passed the credit check but he’s also been thoroughly vetted via the local grapevine. In fact, I’m not 100% sure why the landlords bother with a credit check, given that they have been able to discover the poor chap’s life story, work record, personal habits and – I have no doubt – taste in underwear in just a couple of phone calls. (They say Salman Rushdie went into hiding not far from here during the Satanic Verses fatwa fuss, and I have to say that he can’t have chosen a worse place to be anonymous)

Sadly, among all the other things we know about him is the fact that he doesn’t have a cat, so the cat-shaped hole will go unfilled. And obviously, I definitely won’t be spending most of tomorrow just happening to be gardening out the front as he moves in

Life’s a Beach

July 7, 2013

Summer has come to Bigtown at last, along with the normal accompaniment of lobster tans and dubious fashion choices – but that’s enough about me. Yesterday was the start of our cycle campaign summer rides which start and end on the river and jolly nice it was too in the sunshine. The river in Bigtown is one of its nicest features – complete with salmon fishing, herons, kingfishers and the occasional otter – and when we first moved here we couldn’t work out why one bank was entirely given over to car parking and a tatty street filled with takeaways and empty carpet warehouses. Our puzzlement lasted until the river first properly flooded, which now happens pretty much every winter, inundating the carpark and street, takeaways and all.

The river front path is also one of the main cycle routes through the town, and very pleasant it is too, and I couldn’t help but notice that every time the river flooded it deposited a load of silt and sand onto the path. Most of it gets worn or washed away, but there’s one sort of bay with a bench and some railings, looking out over the river, which is not on the path and so doesn’t get cleared, and is now quite filled with sand. I suppose it was inevitable that – as the sun came out and summer got underway – that this has been mistaken for one of those artificial beaches – it even had a sandcastle on it when we went past. After all, Paris has them on the Seine, London on the Thames – why shouldn’t Bigtown have one too? It’s just that I’ll bet the ones in Paris and London aren’t deposited there along with a nice river full of not-very-dilute sewage.

Still, I don’t suppose the average sandpit at your local park is going to be all that much more hygienic. And they do say that children should ingest a few germs now and then to keep their immune systems on their toes…

Chatty Man

April 12, 2013

A new character might have to be added to the blog’s dramatis personae to replace the hens – for the last couple of weeks whenever I’ve cycled down to the papershop I’ve noticed a chap standing or walking along the back road to Papershop Village. Unusually, he doesn’t have a dog with him, which makes him stand out in these parts, especially as he’s generally to be found quite far from any actual houses. I’ve already learned to my cost that he’s one of those people who treats ‘how are you?’ as a question requiring an actual answer* and that he’s not someone who responds to any winding up sort of remarks in a conversation, so that after I unwarily slowed down to respond to a pleasantry, I ended up having to just ride away from the resulting monologue. I do occasionally enjoy teasing my inner Londoner by getting into conversations with strangers, but preferably not potentially endless ones, so although I know quite a lot about him from his entire medical history to his opinion on people who still live with their mothers in their twenties (not favourable), I still don’t know what he’s doing wandering around the back roads and I’m not about to risk asking. I shall just have to wonder and form increasingly elaborate theories – while making sure I respond to any future conversational gambits from him without breaking my cadence.

I’m reminded of the time when we lived in Maidenhead in a house without a washing machine and every weekend I used to load up the week’s wash into a huge backpack and walk down to the laundrette for a service wash and then hike it back in the evening. I must have done this every weekend for two years, and fully laden hikers are not a common sight in that part of the world. It was almost the last time I did it that someone finally stopped me in the street one evening and burst out ‘What is in that backpack?’ I was only sorry to have to disappoint him with the sad truth that it was just laundry.

Sometimes it’s better not to find out …

*suffering from diabetes, heart disease, a poorly mended dislocated shoulder, and in need of a hip replacement as it happens.

Blast from the Past

January 14, 2013

It’s been a while since someone last tried to kill me (and that was in London so it doesn’t count). So long, in fact, that my ninja cycling reflexes may have become somewhat dulled. Which is why I found myself cycling along a residential street in Bigtown on my normal route into town, seeing the big red van ready to pull out of a side street, noticing the driver looking away off to his left, where there were no cars and not to his right where there was me, thinking hah! I bet he’s just going to pull out without looking and yet STILL not slowing down or stopping to let him out. After all, I did have right of way, and it was a bright clear afternoon and he was (presumably) in possession of a driver’s licence and hence had passed a driving test in which the importance of looking BOTH ways before turning right onto a street would undoubtedly have been impressed upon him. And more to the point, I have cycled past that street a hundred times now and never had a waiting driver do anything but continue to wait until I had passed before making their turn. And so, when the inevitable happened and he chose exactly the moment when I was cycling across the entrance to the street he was on to accelerate out and make his turn, suddenly my field of vision was full of red van and his was full of frightened cyclist. He hesitated, I accelerated and swerved right across the street and fortunately managed to get past his bumper unscathed. He drove off before I could either get his number or have a full and frank exchange of views with him about the difference between looking and seeing, which in retrospect was probably fortunate.

I’d barely recovered from that when I was the one waiting at a junction to turn right when a car turned, cutting the corner so much that it basically drove straight at me until the driver finally looked where he was going, noticed me and managed to swerve around me. All in a day’s work when you cycle around London, I suppose – and I probably would have been much more cautious in the first incident although even now I’m not sure what I could have done about the second – it’s almost impossible to move a bike sideways or backwards in a hurry. Sometimes you’ve just got to rely on your fellow road users not to actually try to kill you if they can help it. It doesn’t seem all that much to ask.

I don’t know if there’s any greater irony than being almost wiped out twice when cycling to meet someone at the council about safer cycling routes (short of being almost wiped out by a council van). As it is, we had a productive and useful meeting and then I cycled home in the dusk slowly and carefully, especially as I could sense the ice practically forming under my wheels. And – I must note – every single driver behaved with exemplary courtesy, even pulling over to let me past so I didn’t have to negotiate the icy edges of the road. The problem is, you get used to that sort of behaviour in the end. And it makes the occasional idiot even more lethal…

You’ll have Had your Tea…

November 15, 2012

Here’s where I’m reminded I’m not from round here: an invitation arrives to a Community Council training course in their Secret Bunker (it really is called that*). The training is in the evening from 6:30 to 9 pm. The assumption is that I will arrive already fed and watered because all normal people eat their tea at 6 pm. Whereas we are still enough of effete southerners to consider 7:30 the absolute earliest possible time to even consider eating our supper. Who knows if I’ll be able to concentrate on matters of winter resilience over the sound of my rumbling stomach… I just hope they’ve laid in plenty of biscuits, that’s all.

*Oh all right, maybe it isn’t actually a secret bunker.

Meeting my Waterloo

October 25, 2012

OK, I’ll admit it, I’ve only actually cycled around the Waterloo Imax roundabout once, and that was only because I had forgotten that was what was at the end of Waterloo bridge. When it comes to big scary multi-lane roundabouts I’m as much of a wuss as the next cyclist with all her arms and legs intact. I can just about handle two-lane roundabouts if they’re quite small and not too busy and I’m going left or straight on but a big fast three-lane, London, choose your lane NOW puny cyclist NOW not in a bit when that bus has gone but NOW come on accelerate and signal and look behind you all at once NOW you need to be doing at least 20mph to play in traffic you know type roundabout then well, I’m all for getting off and pushing. And on this occasion I was on a Boris Bike. Admittedly I had company – I was following the Vole O’Speed and a number of other fine Cycling Embassy folk on a tour of London’s finest infrastructure – and was just enjoying the view of the lights reflected on the inky waters of the Thames as we cycled over the bridge when I looked in front of me and saw the Imax and remembered the roundabout. The Vole, once he gets the bit between his teeth, is not one for stopping or even hearing people announcing that it’s been fun and all, but they’ll be dismounting and taking the underpass, thank you very much, so there was nothing to do but plunge after him pedalling for all I was worth while mentally going something like ‘aieeeeeeeeeee! I’m going to dieeeeeee!‘, only not quite so coherent.

Unfortunately, when I do return to London on occasion with my bike, Waterloo Bridge and its scary roundabout are quite awkward to avoid for most of the journeys I’d want to cycle. So I was pleased to see that this is one of the junctions that TfL will be tackling as part of its review of London’s most dangerous junctions. And I was impressed at the balls of steel displayed by London’s commuters as 5,500 of them apparently cycle around it every weekday, most of them (I imagine) not screaming like a girl, or at least not much. Given that that’s a quarter of the traffic on the roundabout, you’d hope that the end result would be something pretty spiffy for the cyclists but it looks like in fact what it’s going to be is a bit of paint on the road and a promised 20mph speed limit (but not yet).* Given that this is coming after the mayor signed up to the London Cycling Campaign’s ‘Go Dutch’ pledge (possibly under the mistaken impression that that meant cyclists could just share the road and pay half) it’s a little disappointing. You can read what the real grown up bike bloggers think here, and have your say here, although given that work starts a week after the consultation closes, I don’t imagine they’ll be paying much attention. Yeah, one of those consultation exercises.

There are times – like this morning, when I had to cycle a 15 mile round trip just to get a paper – when I miss London. So I’m grateful when TfL come along to remind me why it is I should be delighted not to have to live there any more.

* ‘Well, duh,’ said the other half when I read this out to him. ‘If you’ve already got that many cyclists going round there you don’t want to encourage any more of them.’

Gifted and Talented

October 6, 2012

I have a slightly ambiguous relationship with the Wigtown Festival since we’ve moved up here – lovely as it is to have a nationally renowned book event in the region, the longer I live here the more it feels like London up North, not helped by the fact that the local writers’ events are shunted into ever more inventively hidden backwaters each year. Not, you know, that I’m bitter or anything. However all is forgiven this year, and not just because our writers’ group anthology launch was packed out (the delights of a small venue). Tucked away in one of the galleries around the town they were showing the delightful paper sculptures that an anonymous artist left secretly around various bookish places in Edinburgh last year. I remember the story of this going round the internet last year and thinking it a charming way of showing a real appreciation of places like libraries at a time when they need all the help they can get. As one of the little labels says, Libraries are Expeansive. And as this video shows, it made some librarians very happy indeed

I wouldn’t normally condone cutting up books but I think you’ll agree that in this case the results were worth it.

gifted paper sculputre - Jeykell and Hyde


gifted paper sculpture - lost in a book


gifted paper sculpture - dragon
But don’t take my word for it: go and see for yourself

Tackling the School Run

September 19, 2012

For the last couple of days I’ve been staying with Babymother who, finding herself related to a non-award-winning (but almost…) cycle campaigner, felt compelled this morning to finally tackle the school run on two wheels.

setting off to school

Cycle chic, North London style

She’s written eloquently before why she’s never cycled to school with her kids – not just the fact that the school is on top of a hill (and this is North London which, unlike the malarial swamplands of South London isn’t all that flat) and the fact that last time she attempted it she had to push the youngest all the way, but because it just doesn’t look all that safe to cycle. It’s not that they don’t cycle, but they cycle in parks and (mostly) along the pavement – it wasn’t until they came up to visit us here that either of them really experienced cycling on an actual road, if you can call them that around us. My sister has even got a tagalong, although she hasn’t yet managed to use it. Today, we decided to do a mixture of on foot and two wheels, with me and my sister walking and the girls pedalling, at least in theory. We also decided to allow a whole hour just in case of disaster, so come 8 am this morning with tyres pumped and book bags assembled and last minute forgotten things remembered we set off in the sunshine on a perfect crisp September morning.

bike to school 3

“Mummy, you’re not pushing!”

Possibly a bit too crisp, as the first thing that happened was the girls realised that cycling without gloves makes your hands really really cold. I had a pair in my pocket for the eldest but the youngest had to make do with wearing my sister’s fleece and pulling the sleeves right down over her hands which she accessorised with a tragic expression. She also basically went on strike at that point and refused to pedal at all, which may put the kibosh on the whole ‘active travel’ thing although my sister did at least get a reasonable workout. I hope she knows a decent chiropractor…

The oldest, on the other hand, was absolutely fine. She was cycling on the pavement, of course, because there was no way she could handle the roads, not without a couple of escorts fore and aft. This is school run time, after all, and the traffic was heavy and drivers distracted, there were parked cars along most of the length of the road which would have meant weaving in and out of the traffic. But she zipped up the hill without much problem despite having to stop at every side road for me to catch up and cross with her. Nobody seemed to mind her being on the pavement despite her rather questionable steering and somewhat cavalier approach to ringing her bell. The only time a driver honked was when a car had stopped at the zebra for us, to let us know we could cross.

bike to school 2

Safe and inviting?

It still wasn’t exactly inviting for cycling. Although there is loose talk of forming a peleton of local mums and kids to tackle it together, you really shouldn’t have to be that organised just to get to school – it’s not exactly the sort of carefree, no brainer, joyful way to travel that it ought to be. It certainly shouldn’t be the sort of thing that has people say ‘oh well done you’ to you in the half-admiring half-bemused way that is reserved for impressive but slightly crack-brained acheivements, like pushing a peanut up Everest with your nose. But at least it was a start and I look forward to hearing how they get on for the rest of the term. One day, maybe, that impressive-looking bike shed will have more than a couple of bikes in it on a sunny September morning. One day, maybe, there will be a proper bike track all the way for them to use. Just probably not before they’ve started secondary school, or even got primary-school age kids of their own.

empty bike shed

At least you don’t have to worry about parking

It’s still worth fighting for all the same.

Travels With(out) My Brompton

September 17, 2012

So I am down in London for a secret undisclosed happening which I can’t tell you about (it’s not that exciting, so don’t get your hopes up) and there was much umming and ahing about whether or not to bring the Brompton. After all, taking the Brompton down to London to be like all the other trendy London cyclists was part of the point in the first place, but I’m only down for a couple of days and don’t have to do much in the way of gadding about and it’s a bit of a pain to bring along just on the off chance that I might need a Brompton, especially with the weather turned distinctly autumnal. In the end I decided to go without and stepped onto the train pleased to be unencumbered.

That feeling lasted until about the next stop when a chap got on with HIS Brompton and tucked it into the luggage rack behind my seat with that air of modest pride that only Brompton owners who travel with their Brompton have. Naturally – for you can no more travel with a Brompton and not get into conversation with strangers than you can with a large boisterous puppy – he was soon happily enthusing to the people sitting opposite him about its convenience, how nippy it was, how his life had been transformed – indeed, had we not been in a Virgin Sardineolino, I’m sure he would have leapt up to demonstrate The Fold, and even given them a go down the corridor of the train. By Wigan North Western he and they were firm friends and I was sitting sadly on my own, Bromptonless, without so much as a secret signal or badge to signify that I too had a Brompton, just as good as his – indeed better, because it was MINE.

And then, of course, as we alighted at London I remembered that summer goes on a bit longer down here so it was looking rather promising for cycling. Not only that but my sister tells me that on Wednesday they will be attempting the assault on the school run by bike and my Brompton would be just the thing…


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